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The myths come and go, according to the needs of the day. Thus, when marijuana began to gain popularity as a medicine in the 1970s and 1980s, a new myth was hatched: any benefit perceived by patients is merely a "placebo" effect.
So it was big news when a myth-free report was issued March 17 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a division of the National Academy of Sciences. The report's findings: marijuana is not addictive. It does not lead to hard drugs. And lo and behold: cannabinoids, the active chemical compounds in natural marijuana, "appear to hold potential for treating pain, chemotherapy- induced nausea and vomiting, and the poor appetite and wasting caused by AIDS or advanced cancer."
Many reports had touted marijuana's medical value before; now the outcast herb had been validated once again by a formal authority. On March 18, national headlines trumpeted the news: "Pot Has Uses as Medicine, U.S. Panel Says," "U.S. Panel Sees Potential for Medical Marijuana," "Government Study of Marijuana Sees Medical Benefits." In subheads and on the jump came the report's strongly worded caveat: smoking is not an ideal delivery method, for marijuana or any substance.
This was a remarkable piece of good publicity for a blacklisted drug. And while the IOM report was generally positive, the coverage grew ever more glowing in the hands of a clever spinmeister, Chuck Thomas, the director of communications for the Washington, D.C.based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Indeed, Thomas, 29, was quoted on page one of several stories that day. Typical is the quote he gave to The Washington Post: "This report . . . clearly shows that there is scientific evidence that marijuana has bona fide therapeutic effects for some patients."
Marijuana is medicine? Amazingly, that was the complete opposite of the spin Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey put on the report, which he commissioned in the wake of the 1996 pro-marijuana referendum in California apparently in hopes of generating bad publicity for the pesky drug. His official response to the report, in four words: "More research is needed."
Bob Weiner, McCaffrey's spokesman at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, seizes the opportunity to point out that the advocates and the media are misleading the public when they say marijuana is medicine. "That's not what the report said!" cries Weiner. "It said that smoked marijuana is dangerous and that there is no future for smoked marijuana!"
The day the IOM report was released in Washington, McCaffrey held a news conference in Los Angeles at which he downplayed the value of smoked marijuana, telling reporters that in the future, you won't "find someone with prostate cancer with a 'blunt' stuck in his face." Substituting his message for Thomas's, he used the conference to promote Marinol, a cannabinoid pill that is already on the market, and to call on drug companies to back new means of delivering cannabinoids, such as inhalers, patches, and suppositories.
In many stories, Thomas's spin came first; McCaffrey's did not turn up until later. That might have been because the drug czar was in L.A., not D.C., or it might have been because the IOM report explicitly contradicted his 1996 claim that there is not "a shred of evidence that smoked marijuana is useful or needed." That blooper was broadcast last week in the lead of a skeptical story on ABCNews.com, as well as in the conservative New York Post. And while the drug czar appeared to be publicly endorsing the IOM report, the advocates of medical marijuana were busy painting a different picture.
"This report is General McCaffrey's worst nightmare," one advocate told the Boston Globe. "This report has proved McCaffrey wrong," another told The New York Times. "McCaffrey really hates this report," Thomas explains, "but he'll say he likes it, so people won't say he's been blown out of the water."
So how did the advocates steal the narrative from the drug czar? It didn't hurt that MPP got in at the ground level. "We worked on the IOM project since it was first announced," says Thomas, "giving them information, recommending experts, bringing patients to their hearings."
Then last month, MPP teamed up with the New Yorkbased Lindesmith Center and the Santa Monicabased Americans for Medical Rights, all three of which are funded in part by financier George Soros. Members of the three drug-reform groups began talking on conference calls, plotting a media strategy that would take advantage of the report's imminent release. Between them, they hired two PR firms, sent out press kits, and lined up patients who smoke marijuana to be interviewed. They contacted reporters likely to cover the story and encouraged them to visit an archive of scientific information posted at www.medmjscience.org.
"We were surprised that reporters knew as little as they did," says Michael Shellenberger, director of the San Franciscobased PR firm Communication Works. "For most reporters, the history of medical marijuana began in 1996. Most of them had never heard of the Shafer Commission [which recommended that Nixon decriminalize marijuana in 1972], and most didn't know that the Chinese had been using marijuana for thousands of years."